For many young people, a new school year signals excitement and anticipation as they look forward to catching up with friends, beginning classes with a cool new teacher, or taking up an elective they are really interested in. Unfortunately for others, the new school year can arouse feelings of nervousness, trepidation, anxiety, fear and even panic.
They may be uncomfortable with the newness of changing teachers, subjects or schools. They may be worried about old bullies reappearing, or being alone. It may be the increased demands of being a year older and a year closer to key exams making them anxious.
All these feelings are completely understandable, normal and common. They may manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Youngsters may be more irritable or angrier than normal, they may start to withdraw from people or stop doing normal everyday activities like chores, exercising and socialising. Some young people argue with their caregivers, rebel, or just have a feeling of “not being quite right”.
As parents and carers, it’s easy to think we need to discipline our child for their behaviour and then become confused or frustrated when they don’t respond the way we want. An alternative is to look beyond the behaviours to the feelings behind them, understanding what is going on under the surface. What are they worrying about? Are they trying to tell us they need help, without knowing how to adequately express themselves?
Is “I hate school” or “I’m not getting out of bed to buy school shoes” really hiding questions such as “What if I don’t have any friends?”, “What if those girls are mean to me again?” or “What if I embarrass myself?”. Bear in mind school is not the only thing changing for teenagers – peer groups are shifting, hormones are going wild, feelings are more intense and their brains are signalling a desire to be more impulsive and to take more risks – and these things are mostly out of their control.
The most important thing a parent can do at this point is to truly listen to what their teenager is trying to communicate, either verbally or behaviourally. Your child needs you to listen to them without judgement or criticism and for you to show them empathy so they know you understand how they might be feeling, even if you don’t agree with them. It is important that you are calm and relaxed as you listen to them.
Hear them out and talk with them about times you have faced anxiety-provoking situations and share how you felt and what you learnt from those experiences. Remind them of times when they have felt anxious in the past, but have overcome their fears to achieve positive outcomes. What did they do back then that helped, and could they apply the same strategy now? This type of discussion provides an opportunity to identify their strengths and skills they can use and helps build self-esteem and resilience.
If you uncover lots of worst case “what ifs” circulating in your young person’s mind, draw those thoughts out and help put them in perspective. For example, “What if I don’t have any friends?” can be refocussed along the following lines: “Starting in a new class, you might be away from some of your close mates. But, most of them are still at your school and you can catch up with them at lunch and recess and outside school. Plus, you’ll have a chance to get to know other people better and make new friends – they might be feeling just the same way and being in a new class together gives you something in common to start with.”
Your goal is to guide your child along the continuum from “I won’t do it” to “I want to do it” to “I’ll try to do it”, until finally they can say with pride “I did it!”. Always remember there are other people who can help with this process: school counsellors, principals, year advisors, peer support leaders at the school or counselling organisations like KYDS, are all able to assist.